Updated: Nov 27, 2020
Whether its Anya Taylor-Joy's stunning performance as Beth Harmon, the beautiful period drama sets or its tight-ass script – there are many things to admire about Netflix's The Queen's Gambit. Upping the sex appeal of chess by about 5,000%, its success should be a welcome boost for any creatives currently finding themselves working on a niche or less overtly glamorous premise.
Scott Frank and Allan Scott's adaptation of Walter Tevis' book also smashes it out the ballpark when it comes to the representation of female characters. Here are six reasons why I found the portrayal of women in The Queen's Gambit so delightfully refreshing. (note: duck if you don't want any spoilers)
1. THE DYSFUNCTION
Beth Harmon's mother Alice had severe mental health issues, Beth goes on to become addicted to tranquilisers and alcohol, Beth's adoptive mother Alma is an alcoholic... when it comes to the women in the show, it is dysfunction city. While there are dysfunctional female characters on TV (Villanelle anyone?), it is still rare to see mothers behaving this badly. Yet The Queen's Gambit manages to portray these women struggling with their demons and addictions in a three-dimensional way. They are more than their drug problems, and still these issues are very much tied into their DNA. Most drug addiction stories tend to focus on men, henceforth making these male characters layered and interesting due to their dysfunction, so it was nice to see the same treatment given to women.
2. STRONG CHARACTERS
A female protagonist is a good start when it comes to representation, but with The Queen's Gambit, strong female characters pop up all over the place. Beth's orphanage friend Jolene, played by Moses Ingram, is full of attitude and charm, and despite her troubled start becomes a source of stability. Then we have the adorable relationship that blossoms between Beth and her adopted mother Alma (Marielle Heller), a complicated character plagued by remorse for what could have been. Alma may be drinking her way through life, but she buzzes with personality and love. Other strong female characters include director of the orphanage Helen Deardorff (Christiane Seidel), but we will get to her shortly. An all-female orphanage also provides opportunities for many young aspiring actors. A shout out should also go to Isla Johnston and Annabeth Kelly who both play brilliant younger versions of Beth.
3. TREADING THE MIDDLE GROUND
When it comes to representing orphanage bosses on screen, the most familiar trope is an evil man or woman who does their best to destroy the will and hope of the person incarcerated there. Alternatively, you can also have the parental figure who acts as a warm embrace for the lost soul and tries to build them up again. But in The Queen's Gambit they have trodden the middle ground of making Deardoff unpleasant but not someone who tips Beth over the edge. She doesn't beat her or tell her that she's worthless, and when Beth is asked to play chess at the local club, she allows it. There is something about this choice to let Deardoff play out as someone who is largely unlikeable, but not earth shatteringly horrible, that I appreciated because it added a level of normality to proceedings that felt more in line with real life.
4. SHE. BRINGS. IT.
One of my favourite things about Beth is her attitude. Even as a young girl, she is cocky and confident in her talent. There is a brilliant scene in the first episode where she plays every member of the male chess team simultaneously, defeating them all. There is no modesty there and she shirks off their futile attempts with bravado. Recapping her success to mentor Mr Shaibel (Bill Camp), she guzzles chocolate biscuits whilst saying: “What surprised me was how bad they played... A few of them tried stupid mating attacks, but I took care of them.” It is unusual to see a sportswoman spearhead a film or TV series, but even more so to see someone who is not at all apologetic about their success.
5. CHECK-OUCH! I'll go out on a limb here and say I am not alone in admiring Phoebe Waller-Bridge's work. However, I think what I love most about her is the fact she doesn't shy aware from portraying female bodily functions on screen. Women ACTUALLY have periods, they have miscarriages too, and you see them taking place. It is likely that Waller-Bridge would have been thoroughly cock-a-hoop to see the manner in which Harmon enters the wonderful world of menstruation. It comes as both a surprise to her, and us, and what made it such a special moment was how real it felt. 6. THE MEN
Being a sport dominated by men in the 1950s and 1960s, and let's face it now, there are numerous male players Beth comes into contact with. There is her first major scalp Harry Beltik (Harry Melling), her first major crush Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), her swankster American opponent Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Russian nemesis Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski). And yet, and yet, and yet, instead of ridiculing or ignoring her, many of these male characters become her allies. The Queen's Gambit is a show that has no antagonist trying to bring Beth down, the only person doing that is herself. Even when she gets advice from her friends during an intermission in the crunch match against Borgov, it is Beth that has to take control when her rival plays an unexpected move.
Whether she is battling addiction or doing battle on the chessboard, Beth's destiny remains in her own hands. And this is exactly the sort of stories we should be telling about women, who have so often been depicted as deriving their happiness from men.
Joanna Tilley runs a script companion service for writers which focuses on developing female characters and storylines. For more information on this service, please click here.